Original release: October 14th, 1994
Running time: 154 minutes
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writers: Roger Avary, Quentin Tarantino
Composer: John Williams
Cast: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Ving Rhames, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer
Final scene: 02:07:52 to 02:23:38
There was a time in my life during the mid-nineties that I now see as a sort of transitional period. I was my mid-teens and you might expect this age to be a transitional period naturally, but for me it was a little more. Apart from taking interest in all sorts of creative things, this was when watching movies became a passion as opposed to mere entertainment.
One thing I always loved and wanted to hear in those years was someone telling me “You have to see this movie”. That’s exactly what I was told before seeing Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. I and most of my friends watched the movie several times and we talked about it endlessly. The non-linear structure and so much of the story driven by dialogue were refreshing and exciting to the teenage boy who was about to become a film buff.
These interlocking episodes are also visually arresting with Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) “drawing a square” into thin air with her fingers or Butch (Bruce Willis) sitting in a taxi cab in a scene that’s reminiscent of those car scenes shot in a studio in the early days of cinema.
The sheer volume of analysis that was inspired by Pulp Fiction is comparable to films like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999). The analysis covers various subjects ranging from nihilism, post-modernism, religion, enlightenment and personal transformation. The elephant in the room is of course the famous briefcase and its content. The briefcase that everyone seems to want to have and whoever opens it can do nothing but stare at the orange glow, as if they were hypnotised by that beautiful…something.
I remember wondering about the briefcase in the early days; gold is likely to be everyone’s first guess – but it’s probably not that simple. There’s one theory that’s been particularly widespread and persistent. On one hand this idea can be very passionately embraced as if the content of the briefcase was really something tangible that will finally give us a sigh of relief, but it’s also been dismissed as a mere urban legend spread by overzealous movie fans.
What I personally like about the idea that the briefcase contains Marcellus Wallace’s (Ving Rhames) soul after he sold it to the Devil, is that it makes Pulp Fiction a completely different film from what it looks like on first viewing. These days, however, I wonder what we can say on the subject objectively.
The extreme close-up on the briefcase’s lock combination is a fairly specific clue: 666 the Number of the Beast from the Book Of Revelations in the New Testament gives us a sense of direction. Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) delivers his trademark Bible quote twice; the first time just before killing a man, but the second time he quotes the passage of vengeance he tries to re-interpret it having experienced what he thought was a miracle of divine proportions.
There’s more than enough material in Pulp Fiction derivative of Christian texts and ideas to take that into account when investigating the supernatural glow emanated from the briefcase.
Author Mark T. Conard talks about two films in addition to Pulp Fiction, both of which have a mysterious box containing something that’s beyond the control of the characters. Firstly, he has this to say about Indiana Jones And The Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981):
The second film he discusses in this context is Robert Aldrich’s film noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955):
While the conversation regarding the box in Kiss Me Deadly is of a religious/spiritual nature, when the box is opened, a nuclear explosion is unleashed from inside. As Conard goes on to say, Spielberg and Lucas “turned science into religion”, and the box in Raiders now contains a spiritual light, as Indiana puts it, “fire of God”.
When looking at the briefcase in Pulp Fiction with respect to Indiana Jones And The Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Kiss Me Deadly, we see a far more optimistic representation of the unknown and the supernatural. The interlocking episodes beautifully build up to the film’s final scene of salvation. In its conclusion, Pulp Fiction has the briefcase in the center of a Mexican standoff that dissolves into a theological discussion.
The scene begins with the two henchmen Jules and Vincent (John Travolta) having breakfast in a coffee shop. While they talk, we briefly see “Pumpkin” (Tim Roth) and “Hunny Bunny” (Amanda Plummer) from the film’s opening scene, linking the film’s climax to its beginning and telling us that a robbery is about to happen, but not just yet. Jules and Vincent were shot at several times at close range that morning without a single bullet hitting them, which prompted Jules to re-think his life. While he feels that divine intervention had taken place, Vincent calls the same event a “freak occurrence” as they follow up with a debate on what qualifies as a miracle:
About the miracle we witnessed
The miracle you witnessed. I witnessed a freak occurrence
What is a miracle, Vincent?
Act of God.
And what’s an act of God?
When God makes the impossible possible. But this morning, I don’t think qualifies.
Hey Vincent, don’t you see that shit don’t matter. You’re judging this shit the wrong way. It could be God stopped those bullets, changed coke to pepsi, found my fucking car keys. You don’t judge shit like this based on merit. Now whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What significant is, I felt the touch of God. God got involved.
Jules defines miracle as a subjective experience that can’t be judged based on merit; a single cathartic experience that changed the course of his life in a profound way. His reasoning makes debating the event itself pointless – he talks exclusively about his own experience of that event.
When Vincent visits the men’s room, the robbery begins as we saw in the opening scene. Jules effortlessly overpowers the robbers and with Vincent returning from the toilet, the predicament becomes a four-way Mexican standoff with the two henchmen having the upper hand.
Jules re-names “Pumpkin” to “Ringo” and tells him that he would normally have killed both him and his girlfriend by now, but it just so happens he’s in a “transitional period”, which changed the rules of the game. He delivers the Bible quote he only tells people whom he’s about to murder, but this time he does so in order to find the meaning of the words he’d been saying for many years.
He wonders if he’s the “righteous man” or perhaps the “shepherd”, but eventually settles on what is most likely to be true: what applies to him most in the quote is “the tyranny of evil men”. He then tells his opponent: “But I’m tryin’ Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.” With that, he lets them go as he hopes for salvation.
The briefcase is opened twice in Pulp Fiction. The film’s final scene is the second time and this is when we get a more profound sense of its content. “Ringo” orders Jules to open the case while pointing a gun at him, and he takes a look inside. By now, we have seen Vincent opening the case in the beginning of the film, we saw his expression while staring inside, and we know that he was later killed. Vincent’s expression is worth comparing to Ringo’s upon looking into the case.
Ringo seems to recognise the content and declares that it’s beautiful. Tim Roth brings that moment to the screen beautifully; his voice breaks slightly, almost as if he was about to cry by what he’s witnessing. He – along with Jules – seems to comprehend the nature of the mystery inside the briefcase.
I like to amuse myself and think that it’s Marcellus Wallace’s soul locked behind the Number of the Beast, but I do this because I like the idea and it gives me a new and different kind of experience of watching Pulp Fiction. When being somewhat more objective, I still have very little doubt that the briefcase is meant to contain something supernatural that was inspired by Judeo-Christian philosophy.
This is all combined with a sense of optimism on Tarantino’s part; Pulp Fiction’s conclusion ends with hope for salvation and the briefcase – as opposed to Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Kiss Me Deadly – can be opened and the characters are allowed to admire the beauty inside without being harmed by it.
As far as the many existing theories are concerned, the briefcase could contain Elvis’ gold suit from True Romance (1993), the Oscar Tarantino wanted to win for the film or perhaps it’s the Holy Grail? There are so many to choose from. Maybe we should take Jules’ advice and not judge the content of the briefcase based on merit. Whatever it is, I’m quite sure that it’s more than a mere MacGuffin.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.